Customer calculator debacle appears intended to confound and stifle solar companies, which leaves the monopoly raising rates and destroying the climate
It now seems clear that Duke Energy leaders are deliberately trying to further complicate rooftop solar marketing even before new, onerous rules go into effect as early as October 1 if pending court actions fail. They’re doing so by leaving grossly incomplete a crucial payback calculator needed by solar companies, while pledging to resolve numerous problems at some later date based on customer complaints.
This looks like a cynical corporate strategy to maximize complexity in order to minimize new solar. Our criticism stems from what NC WARN directly learned at a May 15 “stakeholder” meeting Duke held and by conferring with numerous solar industry professionals.
At the stakeholder meeting, Duke officials were vague about what functions the calculator will actually perform, and they indicated plans to correct problems based on (potential?) solar customer feedback in the future. They even called the initial calculator a “minimum viable product.” This obviously leaves installers in a terrible bind; will customers buy solar without credible payback information?
Today we’re redoubling our May 11 call – signed by scores of solar companies, faith groups and others – for Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein to take action. They urgently need to help protect both residential and business/nonprofit solar.
When approving Duke Energy’s net metering rule changes for residential solar customers in March – despite stiff opposition by solar companies, advocacy groups and thousands of North Carolinians – the NC Utilities Commission (NCUC) required Duke to produce the online calculator. It’s supposed to allow solar installers to estimate prospective customers’ benefits under the upcoming new rules.
The South Carolina version of Duke’s calculator reportedly is still problematic although very similar net metering changes were implemented there in January 2022. That’s consistent with Duke’ inability to even promise a functional calculator in North Carolina.
“If Duke Energy can’t figure out its own calculator after all this time, how can solar companies and customers be expected to?” an official with a national solar power supply company told NC WARN. “If a calculator is released for use that doesn’t work properly, it directly and negatively impacts the ability for solar companies to represent the true value of solar to the end user”.
Duke’s inability to produce a viable calculator is the main reason solar installers urged the NCUC to delay implementation of the new rules, leading to a three-month extension to October 1. Layers of complexity have troubled solar companies since Duke applied for the changes in 2021, and 15 of the companies urged Cooper to help. Those complexities involve myriad factors including battery storage, the times solar power is generated and when a customer uses grid power. And now, the calculator.
“People won’t buy solar if they can’t understand the economics,” another solar company official told NC WARN, referring both to the new rules and the online calculator.
Apparently, the calculator would also be required for a rule change for businesses, faith groups and others, which Duke Energy hid within a voluminous rate hike request. NC WARN found it anyway, leading to the letter to Cooper and Stein cited above and signed by 68 solar companies and advocates.
Deliberate Rigging or Incompetence?
NC WARN and at least some solar officials believe Duke Energy has too many smart people to have made net metering and the calculator so incomprehensible by mistake. Duke and other US utilities have been aggressively trying to suppress competition from rooftop solar for a decade.
“This cannot have been a mistake by Duke Energy,” another solar industry official told NC WARN. But even if Duke Energy were honestly outmatched by complexities of its own making, its actions create huge risks for our solar market and climate protection.
Duke’s original proposal would cut customers’ value by 25 to 50 percent according to calculations by solar companies and even Duke Energy. Some say a “bridge rate” that was reached in a later compromise could soften the blow of the rules change for a few years. Other industry officials say the NCUC-ordered annual cap on participation in the bridge rate could be reached months prior to any year’s end, forcing later customers to use the complicated new “time of use” rules.
NC WARN and allies are in the process of appealing the NCUC’s residential order in the courts. Duke responded to our filing by promising the NCUC again that Duke’s own, internal calculations of the rules change are adequate, although an independent cost-benefit analysis is directly required under a 2017 state law. Strong evidence shows net metering benefits even non-solar customers in many ways that Duke’s calculations ignore, as Attorney General Stein’s office has emphasized.
Some 45 scientists have pressed Gov. Cooper to stanch Duke Energy’s huge expansion of natural gas-fired power generation and move North Carolina to true climate protection through energy saving and less costly, renewable generation. But Duke’s regulator-approved carbon plan also would reduce and limit large-scale solar generation for many years – despite the monopoly’s prodigious greenwashing.
Gov. Cooper and AG Stein must prevent Duke’s solar attack from spinning into a major setback for North Carolina. We simply cannot allow Duke Energy to further harm the local solar that’s the fastest, cheapest and most equitable way this state can do its part to help stem the accelerating climate crisis.